Jews, Muslims, and Orthodoxy

Over at Talk Islam, Abu Noor talks about what the face of Islam in America will look like.

He picks up two issues that I have argued previously:

1. The Catholic-Protestant divide is not a useful analogy for discussing the Sunni-Shi’ah divide.

2. We do not need a Reformation in Islam. (See more recently, my talk on Muslims in the Media (part 2))

Where I have difficulty with his argument is the extension of the analogy with Judaism. I agree that the movement approach (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, etc.) better fits the Muslim experience. We generally speak of turuq (paths), of which the madhahib (schools of law) are a specific manifestation. I am not sure what the relationship is between being a proselytizing religion and having various schools of thought, and I hope he expands that point because I think he has something interesting to say, but is not communicating it.

He says succinctly something that I have been trying to explain for quite some time, which is “those both within and without Islam that call for “reformation” are not really calling at all for anything like the Protestant reformation of Christianity but are in fact calling for a Reform Islam movement that would resemble Reform Judaism.” I believe it is this analysis which brings him to the analogy of Islamic schools of thought with Jewish movements.

However, it is his later statements with which I have some concerns. I know Yasir Qadhi, although have not spoken to him recently. Therefore, I can only address what Abu Noor represents is his opinion.

I do not think that we can begin using the term “orthodox Muslim” as a descriptor. Where as the Rabbinic tradition in Judaism functions as a way to determine “correct belief,” the literal meaning of “orthodox,” we have not had that sort of the authority universally recognized in Muslim traditions. There are certain core beliefs that we share, but the term “orthodox” means something else in this context. For example, if we look at the minha, it was an attempt to enforce a type of orthodoxy upon the population. Whose doxis is correct? We do have substantial theological differences amongst the turuq. For example, is it correct belief to believe in Imamah or not?

In many lectures I give, people equate ritual observance with belief. As a community, I have found that we often equate orthopraxy, correct practice, with orthodoxy. However, we have no indication that the ritually observant are believers, or that those who are not ritually observant are not orthodox; they may possess the correct belief, but do not act upon it.

In addition, because of this history, and these types of questions and problems that have appeared in our past, creating an “orthodoxy” implies a “heterodoxy.” We see this division in Sunni-Shi’ah polemics, and polemics amongst the Sunni madhahib.

I think the analogy breaks down in the specifics, as any good analogy should. However, the nomenclature is such a broad “specific,” that it is actually instructive. If we are talking about an American Islam, we need to understand what it is that unites us and differentiates us as Muslims and Americans. We have to realize that many of the Jewish movements have their intellectual seat in Europe, although may have manifested systematically in the US. This means that these movements address one portion of the Jewish community, the Ashkenazim, and does not deal with the differences amongst the Sephardim, Mizrahim, etc.. Although Judaism is often called an ethnic religion, it is in fact more diverse than the Ashekenaz, and the tensions between these groups are manifested in Israel, both culturally and religiously. Remember, it is the Orthodox who govern items of what we would call family law, essentially defining who is Jewish.

We have a lot to learn about the experience of others, and about our own history and diversity. Once we’ve begun that level of exploration, as we are now, I think we can decipher what best to call ourselves in our different communities of interpretation.

One point I would like to make about Razib’s response is that while there is a difference in practice, I think it’s problematic to say that there is no difference in belief. This point goes to my earlier statement, that while there are core beliefs, there are more nuanced beliefs that are not universally shared. This interpretation can be manifested through ritual, so there are differences in belief amongst the various Jewish movements as well.

One thing I am intrigued by is that the Hasids, a group of Orthodox Jews, are actually a mystical movement. It is not just the law, but “law +.” I don’t know how this fits into our analogy. We see something similar in the early periods of Islamic history, with characters like Rabia and Hasan al-Basri, who are derided in some circles as “heterodox.” Systematically, the Fatimid Empire expresses “law +” through writers like Nasir Khusraw and al-Mu’ayyad, but they are condemned because they are Shi’ah. It’s really only when an “orthodox” thinker like al-Ghazzali comes along, that these “heterodox” ideas are mainstreamed.

One thought on “Jews, Muslims, and Orthodoxy

  1. This is a fabulous post. (FYI, for mysterious reasons it hasn’t appeared in my blog aggregator…)
    It has seemed to me also that many of those who call for reform in Islam are in fact calling for a Reform Islam movement which might resemble Reform Judaism, so I’m intrigued to see you make that assertion.
    I’m intrigued also by your point about the challenges of using “orthodox” as a descriptor. This is a challenge within the liberal (read: non-Orthodox) Jewish world as well. It does seem to me that most of the time when we talk about Jewish “Orthodoxy,” we’re really talking about orthopraxis. One could make the case that historically Judaism has been more concerned with practice than with belief. (Though Maimonides did articulate a set of 13 articles of faith which have been fairly mainstream for the last eight hundred years or so. That’s a digression, though. 🙂
    You mention that it is the Orthodox who govern matters of family law. One of the significant differences between Jewish life in Israel and Jewish life in the Diaspora is that in Israel the Orthodox rabbinate has the legal and religious right to determine correct practice; whereas here in the Diaspora, it’s much more common for there to be a shared understanding that different communities follow different norms. (Which is not to say that there aren’t different communal norms in Israel too — but the state religion is clearly Orthodoxy, and other forms of Judaism are relatively disenfranchised there.) This plays out in the family law arena in all kinds of ways. For instance, a Reform rabbi cannot perform a wedding in Israel (not in a way which will be legally recognized). So: yes, it is true that the Orthodox govern matters of family law in Israel, and within Orthodox communities here the same holds, but for communities of American Jews who aren’t a part of Orthodoxy, the question of halakha (the legal tradition) and whose authority is binding becomes a much more complicated question.
    You’re absolutely right that the Jewish denominations have their seat in Europe — in Ashkenaz rather than Sefarad. And that has an impact on how we understand our community and the divisions within it. Studying both Maimonides and ibn Rushd right now is making me hyper-conscious of the extent to which the religious and cultural picture in Spain differed from the picture in, say, Poland…
    Your interest in Hasidism makes perfect sense to me. Law +, yes — there’s the desire to balance strict adherence to the law with constant mindfulness of connection with God. In its purest/highest forms, I see some common ground with what I know of Sufi tradition. (Note that Jewish Renewal, the transdenominational movement of which I am a part, has its roots in Hasidism and has strong connections now with certain Sufi teachers, which may influence how readily that analogy leaps to mind for me…)

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